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Very promising, very demanding

High potential employees often avoid lateral moves that would help them in the future
(Published in the Canadian HR Reporter, September 22, 2003)

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Every executive knows the importance of finding and developing great leaders. But as any seasoned manager will tell you, high potential individuals can also be the most difficult to manage.

They are demanding and driven, wanting answers to questions like, “What do I need to do to move ahead?” and “If I take on this assignment what guarantees can you give me as to where it will lead?”

Giving feedback to high potential employees can be challenging. Early in my career my boss said to me, “You are one of the most irritating employees I’ve ever had.” As my chin dropped, he quickly followed with, “I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, I fully expect to be reporting to you one day.”

Fifteen years later, I understand exactly what he was saying. I’ve had my share of “irritating employees.” They’re always the most capable and ambitious – always questioning, always looking for the next challenges, sometimes at the expense of their current roles. As soon as they think they’ve nailed one job they’re looking for the next promotion. Rarely do they consider sideways moves.

The key to managing these employees is to have an effective succession planning process, though most organizations struggle to put such a system in place. Many are good at having the succession planning event – the day-long meeting in which talent is identified. But to be successful, leaders need to review the list frequently and create meaningful development opportunities for the people on the list.

To further complicate the issue, the traditional succession planning process is not as straightforward as it once was. The traditional “replacement charting” process has become somewhat obsolete in today’s ever-changing business environment. Roles that exist today will likely not exist in the future.

Planning for the replacement of tomorrow’s leaders using today’s definition of specific roles is foolhardy at best. Instead, organizations are recognizing the benefits of taking a supply approach – identifying individuals with the potential to move into a number of broad general management roles, and then focusing their development on a variety of experiences across the organization.

When high potential employees have been identified, organizations face a fundamental dilemma of succession planning: whether or not to tell people they are considered to have leadership potential. Most people in HR have either experienced or heard of cases where an individual believed she was next in line for a particular job, only to be extremely upset when someone else got it. She believed she had been promised the role and felt angry and betrayed, to the point of leaving the organization in disillusionment.

The issue isn’t whether or not to tell high potentials they’ve been identified. The issue is how to communicate they are valued in a way that doesn’t leave them thinking you’ve promised something you may not be able to deliver. Tell high potentials you believe they have future leadership potential, just don’t promise them anything specific.

Instead, outline the types of experiences one needs to be a successful executive in today’s world – start-up, wind down, acquisition, divesture, fix-it, strategy development, strategy implementation, re-engineering, and so on across a variety of functions.

Focus on identifying opportunities for these types of development experiences and commit to helping employees attain them.

High potential employees often run the risk of rising quickly through the ranks in one technical function and ending up pricing themselves out of the many broadening experiences they could have taken along the way that would have tested their skills and abilities in more junior, lower risk roles.

Throughout my career in HR, I have seen several talented individuals who have risen to the rank of senior HR consultants commanding salaries close to $100,000. With clear leadership, strategic thinking, business acumen, project management and implementation skills, they would make great general managers.

However, these fast risers end up with no significant people management experience while running a piece of the business. And senior leaders are reluctant to provide them that opportunity at such a senior level. It is the rare individual who will consider a significant drop in pay and grade for the opportunity to prove her abilities in a position the organization deems less risky. Your job is to give information and offer options – the choice remains theirs to make.

Explain to these individuals that hiring decisions at senior levels are rarely made by the hiring manager alone. Rather, the views of multiple stakeholders are taken into consideration and both long-term and short-term needs of the business are measured.

The state of the business at the time of hire is crucial. If business results are less than adequate, can the organization afford to put someone in a senior role who may need time to move up a learning curve in a new discipline?

How will customers, employees and managers in other units react to a leader without functional expertise? What about the personality and style fit? The issue is rarely one of whether the high potential employee can actually do the job or not. Rather the risk is the “organizational noise” that is created while the new leader is proving herself. Employees throughout the organization may question the hiring decision and the wisdom of senior management, and production may decrease as incredulous water cooler talk increases.

Will the noise be greater and go on longer with one candidate chosen over another? Can the business afford the potential fallout or extra time? If the business is doing well there may be an appetite to make moves that are perceived as risky by more senior leaders. It’s often about timing and circumstance and not just about the abilities of the candidate.

And of course watching how a high potential individual deals with disappointment will provide more information about her capabilities. Does she manage herself appropriately after career disappointment? Does she bounce back quickly and productively? Can she see the bigger picture? Can she put service to the organization ahead of her own self interest?

Lastly, when you’re in the position of having to deliver disappointing news to your high potential individual, be as detailed as you can about the reasons why she didn’t get the job. Help her see the bigger context in which the decision was made. If there is specific feedback about her that was taken into account, don’t shy away from giving it – no matter how difficult. In the absence of information, she will imagine all sorts of reasons for not getting the job. You don’t want this individual wasting energy trying to change the wrong things – and most will work hard to address the concerns.

And, of course, be sure to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to them – even if things didn’t pan out this time.


Karen Todd is a professional speaker, writer, and consultant. She can be reached at 416-284-6752, karen@karentodd.com , or visit www.karentodd.com

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